Years of high-level theft created tinderbox of desperation - Businesslive

18 July 2021 - The sheer scale of the pillage is hard to absorb, dwarfing as it does the vast costs of last week’s mayhem.

Michael Morris

The sheer scale of the pillage is hard to absorb, dwarfing as it does the vast costs of last week’s mayhem.

I am referring, of course, to the pillage of state capture, the reach of which is reflected in the apt suggestion by the SA Council of Churches (SACC) that recovered monies from that venal enterprise be used to establish a restoration fund to help overcome last week’s disaster.

A news report on the SACC idea noted that “[some] of the companies that have repaid the gains of state capture include McKinsey — R870m, Trillian — R600m, China South Rail — R618m, ABB — R1.56bn, with over R1-trillion yet to be recovered”.

It will not be lost on readers that there’s a direct line to be drawn between the monstrously casual looting and devastation visited on SA by governing party politicians, along with their selected cadres and assorted oleaginous hangers-on, and the often curiously unassuming, sometimes even unhurried, free-bootery of last week.

As DA MP James Lorimer wrote last week: “It’s not as if the people who are looting suddenly stumbled on the idea themselves. It’s been common practice at the upper echelons of politics for as long as the ANC has been in power.”

Few will agree on its origins, but a signal moment for me was August 2006 when, as a contemporary news report described it, “[a] defiant Tony Yengeni, carried shoulder-high on a short walk to jail at Pollsmoor and accompanied by ANC leaders and hundreds of ululating supporters ... denounced his incarceration for fraud as ‘a travesty of justice’”. Yengeni, sentenced to four years in jail for his part in arms deal corruption, was openly supported on that day by the ANC’s Western Cape premier Ebrahim Rasool and correctional services minister Ngconde Balfour.

It’s not as if any tacit imprimatur is enough to guarantee wholesale looting. The point is that, just as last week’s mayhem will register as a socioeconomic body blow, the years of multibillion-rand theft and malfeasance (and, lest we forget, the disastrous policy-making environment they spawned) have produced intolerable political and material conditions in which joblessness and poverty form a tinderbox of desperation.

Acting ANC secretary-general Jessie Duarte may believe last week’s crisis was the result of “someone sitting somewhere and planning it”, but it’s doubtful any instigator would have had to break a sweat to get the ball rolling.

Though he was making a different point about the politics of KwaZulu-Natal, Gareth van Onselen observed pointedly that it was “appropriate that [Jacob Zuma] is at the heart of the current crisis. And while it is unlikely his plight is the real driver of the mass looting and vandalism, his politics indisputably is.”

I am indebted to colleague Marius Roodt for highlighting an observation made more than 70 years ago in the wake of the “Durban riots” of 1949 about the condition of black life at the time. Ranji Nowbath wrote then: “There is no security for him; there is no future for his children, and there is no outlet for his energies and emotions. He is frustrated and thwarted. His whole life is one long unending queue of disabilities. He has nothing worthwhile [to enjoy or live] for.”

For all the immeasurable gains of democracy, how hauntingly recognisable these words are today. The trouble, as another colleague, Terence Corrigan, wrote on Friday, is that while “[normality] after a fashion will return ... much of that normality is the problem”.

• Morris is head of media at the SA Institute of Race Relations.